Joss Whedon's new show Dollhouse may be the most challenging work he's ever created. It's about a woman (Eliza Dushku) whose mind has been erased to make her the perfect malleable companion, plaything or tool for the wealthy. It sounded too weird for any network, but especially for the notoriously impatient Fox. And for months, everyone connected with the show has been downplaying reports of trouble, including the shooting of a new pilot and a brief hiatus in production. Nothing to see here, no worries, we've been told. Until now — when Whedon himself popped up on his fansite Whedonesque to say that the show really had just gone through a horrendous crisis. Which is now over. We think. The fact that Whedon is now being so open about admitting that Dollhouse was in terrible trouble recently may, perversely, be a sign that the worst is over. Writes Whedon:
Yes, it's been hard and I've been depressing to be around for awhile. Basically, the Network and I had different ideas about what the tone of the show would be. They bought something somewhat different than what I was selling them, which is not that uncommon in this business. Their desires were not surprising: up the stakes, make the episodes more stand-alone, stop talking about relationships and cut to the chase. Oh, and add a chase. That you can cut to. Nothing I hadn't heard before on my other shows (apparently my learning curve has no bendy part) but frustrating as hell given our circumstances - a pilot shot, scripts written, everybody marching together/gainfully employed... and then a shutdown. Glad I was for the breathing room, but it's hardly auspicious.
The most startling part of Whedon's update: it turns out that everything we were told about the original pilot was wrong. We've been told, over and over, that Dollhouse's original pilot would still air, as its second episode. The new pilot would be more of a standalone episode, introducing the show's premise in a fairly easy-to-digest way. And then the original pilot, which introduces a lot of long-running subplots and mysteries, would air the second week, to pull people in.
But now, it sounds as though the original pilot is just gone. Whedon says he even reshot most of that episode to try and salvage it, but it couldn't be saved:
The original pilot was in fact thrown out. Again, at my behest. Once it became clear what paradigm the Network was shooting for, it just didn't fit at all, even after I'd reshot more than half of it (see above re: despair). To get a sense of how completely turned around I was during this process, you should know there was a scene with Eliza and the astonishing Ashley Johnson that I wrote and shot completely differently three different times, with different characters in different places (actually I wrote it closer to eight times), and none of it will ever see air. Which is as it should be (though I'm determined to get Ms. Johnson back in the future). The scene just didn't belong anymore. Similarly, the character of November has fallen out of the mix, because the show simply moves too fast now for me to do what I wanted with her.
November (played by Miracle Laurie) was one of the "Actives," or programmable mind-wiped puppets, in the Dollhouse. She was described as "the Tracy Turnblad of the Dolls." Her character may pop up in Dollhouse season three, Joss jokes, but meanwhile, Laurie has a new role, as an FBI worker who pines after Tahmoh Penikett's agent Paul Ballard.
Other changes: plot developments that Joss had originally intended to hold back for a while are now coming out early. And some plot elements that he had wanted to introduce right away are being held back. Steven DeKnight, who wrote and directed an episode that helped redefine and save the show, isn't staying on. But Jane Espenson (Battlestar Galactica, Firefly) is joining the staff. In any case, fear not — Joss says that he and the rest of the staff are re-energized by the new direction, and after feeling despondent and lost a month ago, they're now full of excitement again. Joss was so thrilled, he was able to write a new episode in record time — partly because he had to, but also because the words poured out of him. He says the network wasn't wrong to want the show to be "exciting and accessible," and the retooled version sounds like it'll be more upbeat. (And therefore, possibly, less likely to die quickly.) Joss adds:
Nothing essential has changed about the universe. The ideas and relationships that intrigued me from the start are all there (though some have shifted, more on that), and the progression of the first thirteen eps has me massively excited. The episode we're shooting now I wrote as fast as anything I have before, not because I had to (although, funny side-note: I had to) but because I couldn't stop the words from coming. Because I can feel the show talking to me; delighting, scaring and occasionally even offending me. It's alive. Alive! Which is a far cry from how I felt a month ago. It's been hilarious trying to keep up with what's in, what's out, who's met whom and when - we've shot all of the first seven episodes out of airing order - but it's come together in a pretty thrilling way.